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Mindset for research

October 24, 2016

Boxes of toys, a puppet theater and an assortment of praise phrases are all important elements in Assistant Professor of Psychology Rachael Reavis’ Peer Lab.

Through the lab, Earlham students conduct research for two primary projects. The first studies how a certain kind of praise for children, identity praise, can undermine growth and breed the fear of failure. The second project studies the importance of reading to children before they enter school.

“We’re learning about the negative power of identity praise versus process praise,” Reavis says. Recently it has been generally accepted that telling kids they are smart will help them feel good about themselves.

“Wrong,” Reavis says emphatically.

When kids are told that they are smart or beautiful or athletic, they are more likely to develop a fixed mindset, relying on natural ability rather than effort. When praised for effort, a kid is more likely to develop a growth mindset and will work harder.

“The study shows that people are not just born to be smart,” says Lara Khalifeh ’18 (pictured above). “We can work hard to become smart, and praise is an important part of that.”

“Praise can determine if a child has a growth or fixed mindset,” says Jordyn Grimes ’16. “If more people have growth mindsets, people would try harder and not give up so easily. Science has shown that our brains can grow and get stronger, so it’s never too late.”

The growth mind-set research, now in its fourth year at Earlham, includes testing adults, college students and children ages 8-12. Each participant is asked to solve a problem and then given either identity praise such as “You are smart,” or process praise such as “You worked hard.” Then participants are given a more challenging problem to solve, and are all told they didn’t do as well. The next step is to ask participants a series of questions about persistence, intelligence, and tackling another problem.

Similar studies find that those given the process praise are more likely to develop a growth mindset and are willing to tackle a more difficult task, while those given the identity praise demonstrate fixed-mindset attributes and choose against working a more difficult problem because they fear failure, which they equate with a lack of intelligence rather than a lack of effort.

Karli -oxford -jordan -psychologyThe second study is an evaluation for Birth-to-Five’s Parents as Teachers, also called PAT, which helps prepare children for kindergarten through monthly home visits. The research tracks how often and for how long parents in the program read to their children. Additionally, researchers compare children in kindergarten who were and were not in the program.

Earlham students administer three tests to children in various elementary schools, the Developmental Vocabulary Assessment for Parents, the Phonemic Awareness Test, and the Challenging Situation Test.

“We’re looking to find out if there is a relationship between being a part of the PAT program and academic standing, vocabulary skills and social standing,” Khalifeh says.

In addition to the two studies, the Peer Lab is used for independent research for Earlham students.

For example, as part of her senior research project, Karli Oxford-Jordan ’17 (pictured right) uses a puppet show and parent questionnaires to study whether family variables in conflict resolution and infant temperament type predict infant and toddler’s preferences for a helpful or a harmful puppet.

“I love doing research with Rachael,” Khalifeh says. “She is organized, and she wants you to grow. She wants to challenge you to see what you can do.”

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